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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsBooks And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - H.G. Wells
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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - H.G. Wells Post by :dtyler Category :Nonfictions Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1292

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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - H.G. Wells

(_4 Mar. '09_)

Wells! I have heard that significant monosyllable pronounced in various European countries, and with various bizarre accents. And always there was admiration, passionate or astonished, in the tone. But the occasion of its utterance which remains historic in my mind was in England. I was, indeed, in Frank Richardson's Bayswater. "Wells?" exclaimed a smart, positive little woman--one of those creatures that have settled every question once and for all beyond reopening, "Wells? No! I draw the line at Wells. He stirs up the dregs. I don't mind the froth, but dregs I--will--not have!" And silence reigned as we stared at the reputation of Wells lying dead on the carpet. When, with the thrill of emotion that a great work communicates, I finished reading "Tono-Bungay," I thought of the smart little woman in the Bayswater drawing-room. I was filled with a holy joy because Wells had stirred up the dregs again, and more violently than ever. I rapturously reflected, "How angry this will make them!" "Them" being the whole innumerable tribe of persons, inane or chumpish (this adjective I give to the world), who don't mind froth but won't have dregs. Human nature--you get it pretty complete in "Tono-Bungay," the entire tableau! If you don't like the spectacle of man whole, if you are afraid of humanity, if humanity isn't good enough for you, then you had better look out for squalls in the perusal of "Tono-Bungay." For me, human nature is good enough. I love to bathe deep in it. And of "Tono-Bungay" I will say, with solemn heartiness: "By God! This is a book!"

* * * * *

You will have heard that it is the history of a patent medicine--the nostrum of the title. But the rise and fall of Tono-Bungay and its inventor make only a small part of the book. It is rather the history of the collision of the soul of George Ponderevo (narrator, and nephew of the medicine-man) with his epoch. It is the arraignment of a whole epoch at the bar of the conscience of a man who is intellectually honest and powerfully intellectual. George Ponderevo transgresses most of the current codes, but he also shatters them. The entire system of sanctions tumbles down with a clatter like the fall of a corrugated iron church. I do not know what is left standing, unless it be George Ponderevo. I would not call him a lovable, but he is an admirable, man. He is too ruthless, rude, and bitter to be anything but solitary. His harshness is his fault, his one real fault; and his harshness also marks the point where his attitude towards his environment becomes unscientific. The savagery of his description of the family of Frapp, the little Nonconformist baker, and of the tea-drinkers in the housekeeper's room at Bladesover, somewhat impairs even the astounding force of this, George's first and only novel--not because he exaggerates the offensiveness of the phenomena, but because he unscientifically fails to perceive that these people are just as deserving of compassion as he is himself. He seems to think that, in their deafness to the call of the noble in life, these people are guilty of a crime; whereas they are only guilty of a misfortune. The one other slip that George Ponderevo has made is a slight yielding to the temptation of caricature, out of place in a realistic book. Thus he names a half-penny paper, "The Daily Decorator," and a journalistic peer, "Lord Boom." Yet the few lines in which he hints at the tactics and the psychology of his Lord Boom are masterly. So much for the narrator, whose "I" writes the book. I assume that Wells purposely left these matters uncorrected, as being essential to the completeness of George's self-revelation.

* * * * *

I do not think that any novelist ever more audaciously tried, or failed with more honour, to render in the limits of one book the enormous and confusing complexity of a nation's racial existence. The measure of success attained is marvellous. Complete success was, of course, impossible. But, in the terrific rout, Ponderevo never touches a problem save to grip it firmly. He leaves nothing alone, and everything is handled--handled! His fine detachment, and his sublime common sense, never desert him in the hour when he judges. Naturally his chief weapon in the collision is just common sense; it is at the impact of mere common sense that the current system crumbles. It is simply unanswerable common sense which will infuriate those who do not like the book. When common sense rises to the lyric, as it does in the latter half of the tale, you have something formidable. Here Wells has united the daily verifiable actualism of novels like "Love and Mr. Lewisham" and "Kipps," with the large manner of the paramount synthetic scenes in (what general usage compels me to term) his "scientific romances." In the scientific romance he achieved, by means of parables (I employ the word roughly) a criticism of tendencies and institutions which is on the plane of epic poetry. For example, the criticism of specialization in "The First Men in the Moon," the mighty ridicule of the institution of sovereignty in "When the Sleeper Wakes," and the exquisite blighting of human narrow-mindedness in "The Country of the Blind"--this last one of the radiant gems of contemporary literature, and printed in the _Strand Magazine_! In "Tono-Bungay" he has achieved the same feat, magnified by ten--or a hundred, without the aid of symbolic artifice. I have used the word "epic," and I insist on it. There are passages toward the close of the book which may fitly be compared with the lyrical freedoms of no matter what epic, and which display an unsurpassable dexterity of hand. Such is the scene in which George deflects his flying-machine so as to avoid Beatrice and her horse by sweeping over them. A new thrill, there, in the sexual vibrations! One thinks of it afterwards. And yet such flashes are lost when one contemplates the steady shining of the whole. "Tono-Bungay," to my mind, marks the junction of the two paths which the variety of Wells's gift has enabled him to follow simultaneously, and, at the same time, it is his most distinguished and most powerful book.

* * * * *

I have spoken of the angry and the infuriated. Fury can be hot or cold. Of the cold variety is Claudius Clear's in the _British Weekly_. "Extremely clever," says Claudius Clear. "There is, however, no sign of any new power." But, by way of further praise: "The episodes are carefully selected and put together with skill, and there are few really dull passages." This about the man of whom Maeterlinck has written that he has "the most complete and the most logical imagination of the age." (I think Claudius Clear may have been under the impression that he was reviewing a two-hundred-and-fifty-guinea prize novel, selected by Messrs. Lang and Shorter.) Further, "He writes always from the point of a B.Sc." But the most humorous part of the criticism is this. After stating that Ponderevo acknowledges himself to be a liar, a swindler, a thief, an adulterer, and a murderer, Claudius Clear then proceeds: "He is not in the least ashamed of these things. He explains them away with the utmost facility, and we find him at the age of forty-five, _not unhappy, and successfully engaged in problems of aerial navigation_" (my italics). Oh! candid simplicity of soul! Wells, why did you not bring down the wrath of God, or at least make the adulterer fail in the problems of flight? In quoting a description of the Frapps, Claudius Clear says: "I must earnestly apologize for extracting the following passage." Why? As Claudius Clear gets into his third column his fury turns from cold to hot: "It is impossible for me in these columns to reproduce or to describe the amorous episodes in 'Tono-Bungay.' I cannot copy and I cannot summarize the loathsome tale of George Ponderevo's engagement and marriage and divorce. Nor can I speak of his intrigue with a typist, and of the orgy of lust described at the close of the book...." Now, there is not a line in the book that could not be printed in the _British Weekly_. There is not a line which fails in that sober decency which is indispensable to the dignity of a masterpiece. As for George's engagement and marriage, it is precisely typical of legions such in England and Scotland. As for the intrigue with a typist, has Claudius Clear never heard of an intrigue with a typist before? In faithfully and decently describing an intrigue with a typist, has one necessarily written a "Justine"? And why "orgy of lust"? Orgy of fiddlestick--if I am not being irreverent! The most correct honeymoon is an orgy of lust; and if it isn't, it ought to be. But some temperaments find a strange joy in using the word "lust." See the infuriating disquisition on "Mrs. Grundy" in "Tono-Bungay." The odd thing is, having regard to the thunders of Claudius Clear, that George Ponderevo is decidedly more chaste than nine men out of ten, and than ninety-nine married men out of every hundred. And the book emanates an austerity and a self-control which are quite conspicuous at the present stage of fiction, and which one would in vain search for amid the veiled concupiscence of at least one author whom Claudius Clear has praised, and, I think, never blamed--at least on that score. I leave him to guess the author.

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